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James Lees-Milne
James Lees-Milne

(George) James Henry Lees-Milne (6 August 1908 – 28 December 1997) was an English writer and expert on country houses, who worked for the National Trust from 1936 to 1973. He was an architectural historian, novelist and biographer. His extensive diaries remain in print.

Early life


Lees-Milne was born on 6 August 1908 at Wickhamford, Worcestershire. He was the second of three children and elder son of prosperous cotton manufacturer and farmer George Crompton Lees-Milne (1880–1949) and his wife Helen Christina (1884–1962). His sister Audrey, who was born in 1905, later married Matthew Arthur, 3rd Baron Glenarthur. His younger brother Richard was born 1910.

His father, formerly a Lieutenant in the Cheshire Yeomanry, was chairman of the family business A. and A. Crompton & Co. Ltd,[1] and his mother was a daughter of Henry Bailey, J.P., D.L., of Coates, Gloucestershire. His maternal grandfather was Sir Joseph Bailey, 1st Baronet and his unlce, Joseph Bailey, the second baronet, was later created Baron Glanusk. His paternal family, the Lees-Milnes, were landed gentry descended from the Lees family of Thurland Castle, Lancashire.[2] The name Milne was added by royal licence in 1890 by Lees-Milne's great-grandfather James in order to inherit the estate of a maternal relative. This estate included Crompton Hall, Lancashire, which alongside Wickhamford Manor was owned by George Crompton Lees-Milne. (He eventually sold both properties, but the former remained in the family).[3][4][5][6]

Lees-Milne attended Lockers Park School in Hertfordshire, Eton, and Magdalen College, Oxford,[7] from which he graduated with a third-class degree in history in 1931.[8]

Career


From 1931 to 1935, he was private secretary to the 1st Baron Lloyd.[4][9] In 1936 Lees-Milne was appointed secretary of the Country Houses Committee of the National Trust.[4] He held the position until 1950, apart from a period of military service from 1939 to 1941. During his tenure he was a regular contributor to the Trust's members' newsletter. He was instrumental in the first large-scale transfer of country houses from private ownership to the Trust. He resigned his full-time position in 1950, but continued his connection with the National Trust as a part-time architectural consultant and member of committees.

From 1947 Lees-Milne published several architectural works aimed primarily at the general reader. He was also a diarist – his witty, waspish and extensive diaries appeared in twelve volumes and were well received. Larry McMurtry commented that Lees-Milne, like Pepys and Boswell, was disarmingly open about his failings — indeed, would not have known how to go about concealing them.[10] Nicholas Birns notes that Lees-Milne spoke "so candidly about himself, his life, and his love of art and architecture that his authorial relationship with the reader becomes a privileged one, not to be readily or casually communicated, not to be flaunted or brandished."[11]

Lees-Milne also wrote other works, including several biographies — for instance of Harold Nicolson, The Bachelor Duke of Devonshire, and Lord Esher — and an autobiographical novel.

In 1993 Lees-Milne declined a CBE in the New Year's Honours list, considering it inadequate recognition compared with the knighthood he felt was his due.[12]

Personal life


Lees-Milne was visiting Diana Mitford Mosley in December 1936 when King Edward VIII abdicated. The purpose of his visit there was to examine the 17th-century house that she and her husband Sir Oswald Mosley were then renting. He recorded later how he and Diana (her husband was in London) had listened to the King's broadcast abdication speech with tears running down their faces. He was the lover of her brother Tom Mitford when they were at Eton College together, and was devastated when Tom was killed in action in Burma in 1945. Lees-Milne was friends with many of the prominent British intellectual and social figures of his day, including Nancy Mitford, Harold Nicolson, Deborah Mitford (a former lover about whom he wrote a two-volume biography), and Cyril Connolly.

In 1951, he married Alvilde, Viscountess Chaplin, née Bridges, a prominent gardening and landscape expert.[4] Both Lees-Milne and Alvilde were bisexual, and Alvilde is reputed to have had lesbian affairs with Vita Sackville-West, Winnaretta Singer and others.[13]

Alvilde Lees-Milne died in 1994. Lees-Milne died in hospital at Tetbury on 28 December 1997.[4] His ashes and those of his wife, Alvilde, were scattered in the grounds of Essex House.

After 13 years at Alderley Grange, Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire[14] and a brief period in Bath, he and Alvilde lived after 1974 at Essex House on the Badminton estate, also in Gloucestershire, while he worked most days in William Thomas Beckford's library at Lansdown Crescent. While living in Badminton he entered into a feud with his landlord, the 10th Duke of Beaufort, whose foxhunting passion and autocratic manner appalled him. As a Trustee of the Bath Preservation Trust, he became a Founding Trustee of its Beckford's Tower Trust, established in 1977 to preserve and maintain the building and its collection for public benefit.

In popular culture


A series of three plays inspired by Lees-Milne's diaries — Sometimes into the Arms of God, The Unending Battle and What England Owes — were broadcast by the BBC in July 2013.[15]

Selected bibliography


  • The Age of Adam (1947)
  • The Tudor Renaissance (1951)
  • The Age of Inigo Jones (1953)
  • Roman Mornings (1956)
  • Earls of Creation: Five Great Patrons of Eighteenth-Century Art (1962)
  • St Peter's: The Story of Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome (1967)
  • English Country Houses: Baroque, 1685–1715 (1970)
  • Another Self (1970), an autobiographical novel
  • William Beckford (1976)
  • Round the Clock (1978)
  • Harold Nicolson: A Biography, 2 vols. (1980–1981)
  • Images of Bath illus by David Ford (1982)
  • The Last Stuarts: British Royalty in Exile (1984)
  • The Enigmatic Edwardian: The Life of Reginald, 2nd Viscount Esher (1986)
  • Some Cotswold Country Houses: A Personal Selection (1987)
  • Venetian Evenings (1988)
  • The Bachelor Duke: A Life of William Spencer Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, 1790–1858 (1991)
  • People and Places: Country House Donors and the National Trust (1993)
  • Ruthenshaw (1994), fiction, a ghost story
  • Fourteen Friends (1996)
  • Diaries: Ancestral Voices (1975) Prophesying Peace (1977) Caves of Ice (1983) Midway on the Waves (1985) A Mingled Measure (1994) Ancient as the Hills (1997) Through Wood and Dale (1998) Deep Romantic Chasm (2000) Holy Dread (2001) Beneath a Waning Moon (2003) Ceaseless Turmoil (2004) The Milk of Paradise (2005)
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